Holtville High senior running back Donovan Johnston tries to shed a tackler from Mountain Empire High of Pine Valley during a Desert League game at Birger Field in Holtville on Friday, Oct. 22. The Vikings beat the Redhawks, 7-3. | CATHI PHILLIPS LARIOS PHOTO
HOLTVILLE — After 38 minutes of ineffective offense, the Holtville High School football team’s defense helped set up the only touchdown of the game as the Vikings beat Mountain Empire of Pine Valley, 7-3, in a key Desert League game at Birger Field here on Friday, Oct. 22.
The Vikings (2-1 in DL, 7-2 overall) moved into second place in the league standings with Vincent Memorial Catholic of Calexico (2-2 in DL, 5-4 overall) losing 50-16 to Palo Verde Valley in Blythe on Friday, Oct. 22. Mountain Empire (1-2 in DL, 4-5 overall) sits in fourth place with Calipatria (0-3 in DL, 2-7 overall) in fifth.
Palo Verde is on top of the DL with a perfect 3-0 record (6-2 overall).
Against the Redhawks on Friday, the Vikings continually shot themselves in the foot on fourth downs to end drives. Four times in the first three quarters of the game they ended drives with mistakes on fourth down.
Whether it was an overthrown pass, a fumbled snap or a sack, Holtville was unable to convert any fourth downs and find the end zone.
“That’s a good team (Mountain Empire) that matches up really well with us,” said Jason Turner, Holtville’s fifth-year head coach. “They’ve got some tough kids over there and honestly we were lucky to get out with the win.”
After driving to the Mountain Empire 5-yard-line with 20 seconds left in the third quarter, a fumbled handoff between senior quarterback Spencer Hilfiker and senior running back Donovan Johnston gave the ball to the Redhawks at their own 7-yard-line.
Two plays later Mountain Empire sophomore quarterback Mannix Gonzalez dropped back to pass but was hit as he threw, causing the ball to flutter in the air and fall into the waiting arms of Holtville’s sophomore linebacker Fermin Velarde, who returned it about 10 yards to the 5-yard-line.
Two plays later Johnston was able to find the end zone and get the Vikings on the scoreboard. Sophomore kicker Bryan Padilla booted the extra point and Holtville led 7-3 with 10:16 left in the game.
“I saw my teammate get in there and hit the quarterback and the ball went straight up in the air,” said Velarde, the 15-year-old middle linebacker. “I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. I wanted to return it all the way but I’m glad I was able to help set up the offense to get the touchdown.”
These two teams met in the second week of the season with the Vikings pulling out a 22-14 win after trailing most of the contest. A touchdown with less than a minute remaining gave them the win in Pine Valley back in August.
Holtville’s offense on Friday managed just 139 total yards, with only 15 coming through the air. Mountain Empire’s gameplan of eating up the clock worked perfectly in the first half as the Redhawks took a 3-0 lead into halftime.
“They did exactly what the wanted in the first half. We only had the ball twice in the entire half,” Turner said. “They had a fumble and an interception in the second half or we might not have scored.”
Mountain Empire ate up almost seven minutes with its first drive, going 51 yards in 11 plays but the drive stalled at the Vikings’ 9-yard-line. Holtville then took the ball for the next nine minutes and marched 68 yards in 17 plays only to have that drive stall on an incomplete pass on a fourth-and-seven play at the Redhawks’ 23-yard-line.
Mountain Empire followed that up with an almost seven-minute drive, going 65 yards in 12 plays, finishing the drive with a 30-yard Daniel Obed field goal with just 23 seconds left in the half to put the Redhawks up 3-0.
“We didn’t play well. We made a lot of mistakes out there tonight, but that’s on us,” Velarde said. “I know they had some big, strong runners but we just have to stay low to tackle them.”
After the Vikings took the lead in the fourth quarter, the Redhawks were only able to move the ball to the Holtville 41-yard-line before their final drive stalled on a fourth-and-14 play.
Mountain Empire’s next game is slated for 7 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 29, as the Redhawks will welcome league-leading Palo Verde to Pine Valley.
Holtville is back on the gridiron at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 28, when it travels to Calipatria for the annual Axe Game rivalry contest against the Hornets.